Tuesday, 18 February 2020

Shades of Evil

So what are Lawful Evil, Neutral Evil, and Chaotic Evil, exactly?

The best way to conceptualise these alignments is, I think, to describe them as being circumstances in which the excess of law, neutrality or chaos becomes indeed so excessive that it turns to evil.

Neutral Evil is the easiest to explain in this way. Here is a character who has no interest in the furtherance of anything beyond himself, and especially not in the grand conflict between Law and Chaos which permeates the multiverse. He is completely self-centred and devoted to his own pleasure and success. That this can turn to evil is obvious.

The more difficult questions are where Lawful Neutrality and Chaotic Neutrality turn to evil. Lawful Neutrality - the absolute insistence on the letter of the law and the preservation of order - can clearly have negative consequences where it results in harsh or unmerciful application. This is Javert from Les Miserables in a nutshell; a man for whom the enforcement of the law is everything and who therefore becomes blinded to unfairness or injustice as a result. That falls short of evil, because it lacks the necessary intentionality - it's not that Javert is a bad man; he's just misguided. Where the excess of law becomes evil is I think where anything which is outside of or orthogonal to established norms becomes seen as inhuman, worthy of extermination, and open to whatever forms of abuse one wishes to subject it to - it is Nazis casting aside human "impurities"; it is the Khmer Rouge expunging all bourgeous elements. The insistence on a hypertrophied sense of purity or orderliness taken to the point at which it justifies any form of brutality or depravity. It doesn't have to be racial or political purity as these examples are, of course - it could be, for instance, a religious person who insists on absolute orderliness and inflicts horrible torture on anybody who strays outside of accepted boundaries, or a village elder who enforces cultural norms with sadistic glee. (Is a girl being burned alive or stoned to death for daring to report a sexual assault committed against her by a teacher in Bangladesh an example of Lawful Evil in action?)

Chaotic Neutrality, similarly, can have very bad consequences. Think of Drop Dead Fred (I generally try not to think about that film, but this is one occasion where a character is a great example of an alignment). If that character were a real person, he would be the prime example of Chaotic Neutrality - he lacks any malice, but obeys no norms whatsoever. He is capable of causing physical devastation, pain and suffering as a result, but these are byproducts of his chaotic nature, not the result of intent. The Joker from The Dark Knight, on the other hand, is Chaotic Evil, because although he too emphasises disobedience of norms, the point of him doing so is to destroy those norms entirely such that he can give free reign to criminality and vice and "watch the world burn" or whatever the line is. Drop Dead Fred is merely capricious. The Joker is purposively so.

The Place of the Keepers

There will be more to come on alignment, but I was chided, or chastised (is there a difference?) for not putting up more Northumberland Yoon-Suin stuff, so here is something for the peanut gallery:

The Place of the Keepers

Where the mouth of the Border Water spills out into the sea stands an ancient burgh with mighty walls made of pinkish-gold granite. It has stood at least since the Emperor made it, as a place to station His fleet. Since he disappeared a long line of men have “kept” it, and his ships - under what they claim was His final command and deriving the status from His ultimate authority.

Whether there was originally intended to be just one Keeper or many is a point of historical and legal debate. Whatever the truth of the matter, the number of Keepers has grown inexorably over time due to a custom instituted long ago. When a Keeper dies, a new one is elected by the burghers from among their number to replace him. The previous Keeper is then interred in a barrow to the south of the burgh, whereupon spells are cast by the Vestals, a caste of priestly witches, in order to retain his wisdom and vitality for the furtherance of the task the Emperor gave him. He thus remains in his dark barrow as a wight, and is periodically exhumed and brought back to the burgh to give advice when required.

As a result of this practice, there are now many dozens of Keepers, one of whom is alive - for the time being - but the rest of whom are dead. Whenever the living Keeper is called upon to do or decide anything, he is required to consult all of the others, who are accordingly exhumed with great ceremony and brought into the burgh to speak and cast a vote. This is partly as a result of custom, but mostly as a result of political prudence. Each dead Keeper generally retains the loyalty of his household, followers and descendants after death; these people cling on to the status and privileges which accrued to them when “their” Keeper was alive, and form an ongoing power bloc within the burgh ever after. The result of this is that the current living Keeper is faced with great pressure to accommodate the views of the dead ones in order to placate potential sources of civil strife.

Another result of this is that governance of the burgh grows ever more fractious over time, because with each dead Keeper there are new vested interests jostling for influence. Some powerful families have three, four or even five dead Keepers in their ancestry. The exert great pressure on the living Keeper as a result. Their rivals compete vigorously to have their sons elected Keeper so that they can expand their voice and maintain it through the generations. The burgh is riven with plots, counter-plots, assassinations and fluctuating alliances - and the streets and alleyways and taverns are forever filled with whispered rumours about goings-on among the burghers; for the common people, the shenanigans of the great and good are more interesting than any sport.

The burgh still harbours a war fleet, nominally owned by the Emperor and awaiting the return of imperial rule. These old ships - sleek, oared things built for ramming - are meticulously repaired and maintained, though of course over time they have grown fewer, and the ones that remain inevitably show their great age in the vast encrustations of barnacles on their hulls and in their constantly expanding patchworks of repairs. Each ship by convention is given only a number and not a name, but they are treated as demigods or saints by the inhabitants of the burgh, who recite tales and legends (whether fanciful or true, none can say) about them from their many centuries of service, and insist that their captains and crews know them to be sentient - capable of communicating strange needs and desires through the dreams of those on board, and able at times to control the winds so as to avoid danger or change course to some unknown place. Each ship has its cult, whose members offer it prayer and sacrifice, and ask it to intercede on their behalf with the forgotten imperial gods - or even the soul of the Emperor Himself - whenever they are anxious, joyous, or otherwise in need of blessings. Whenever a ship of the fleet leaves the harbour, the words goes out ("The IVth is on its way"; "Is that the XIXth? The repairs must have been finished") and the members of that particular cult flock to the quayside to throw flowers, shower it with ale, or dive into the water to swim alongside it. In those moments of passion and excitement in the morning sun, it is easy for the participants to forget that the fleet has had no apparent purpose for many generations, and the voyages of its ships are as lacking in wider meaning as the blowing of the wind or the falling of the rain.

Friday, 14 February 2020

Alignment Embodiments

Here's a game you can play along to on your own blog or social media platform of choice. Which fictional character (or group of characters) from book or film epitomises you understanding of each alignment? Go.

Lawful Good - Jean-Luc Picard

Lawful Neutral - Javert from Les Miserables

Lawful Evil - The Dark Judges from Judge Dredd

Neutral Good - Gandalf

True Neutral - the Laputans from Gulliver's Travels

Neutral Evil - Aila Woudiver

Chaotic Good - Tom Bombadil

Chaotic Neutral - Raoul Duke

Chaotic Evil - Judge Holden from Blood Meridian

Wednesday, 12 February 2020

RPGs, Intimacy and Stand-Up

RPGs are most often compared to video games or board games, or perhaps to novels. In many ways, they are much more similar to stand-up comedy, traditional communal story-telling, or preaching. This is because at its core playing an RPG is a communal exercise in shared visualisation. 

You can play video games communally, but all of the players are seeing the same things (literally, in the case of the old fashioned shared-screen/split-screen games I used to play; almost literally when it comes to online gaming). When you read a novel, you are trying to visualise something which another person is describing, but it's just you and the writer.

During an RPG session, on the other hand, the DM or a player is imagining something and describing them to the other participants, and they are trying to 'see' what it is in their own heads, all at once. 

The phenomenology of this is fascinating. If it were somehow possible to do so, one would be able to look into the minds' eyes of all of the participants and see a different version of the events being described in each of them, all playing out simultaneously. It would be like a case study in human perception, consciousness and communication, all at once. 

People are uncomfortable with the idea that there is an intimacy in this, but there is, isn't there? Somebody is imagining something, and describing it, and you and several other people are sitting listening to this and trying to imagine the same thing. This can't help but be a bonding experience, I think, even if of a very trivial kind and mediated through humour and distractions and snacks and beer. No big deal - there are plenty of bonding experiences in life. But there aren't many that I can think of that are based around shared visualisation of something, particular amongst a group of people. 

One that stands out is storytelling, of the old-fashioned variety - a person standing up in front of an audience to tell them a tale. This is also true of stand-up, which is a kind of bastard progeny of that tradition, and preaching, which has a strong story-telling component at times. One person is imagining something and describing it to others, and those others do their damnedest to try to imagine it too. It is no accident that these activities are also strong sources of human bonding - whether it's a tribe, a religious community, or an audience watching Dave Chapelle. 

Another way of putting this is: playing RPGs helps you form lasting friendships. You knew that already. But it's worth emphasising. 

Tuesday, 11 February 2020

Unholy Island

A few miles north of Dolorous Garde and perfectly visible from its walls lies Unholy Island - a flat and mostly featureless expanse of dunes, tough grasses and marsh, with, at its very eastern tip, a hill which thrusts itself up like a dorsal fin. Beneath the hill is a natural harbour and standing on its summit is a fort of red stone: The Nunnery.

The nuns of Unholy Island have given themselves in marriage to Old Mister Sharpness, a God of Theft. Their worship of him consists in devoting themselves to stealing - of material possessions, naturally, but also of skins, which they flay from their captives alive. This is a function of their doctrine, which stipulates that theft can only be theft if the item is taken from somebody living (because the dead have no possessions); if its taking deprives the owner of its use; and if the taker gains a benefit from the taking. A flayed skin meets these requirements - provided of course that the victim can be kept alive to the end of the process, which is by no means straightforward. This is because the skin is taken from the living; because its taking deprives the victim of its use; and because it benefits the taker, who can put the skin to various practical effects. It is a point of dispute among the nuns as to whether it is necessary to actually use the skin, or whether it suffices that it could in theory be put to use, in order for its taking to count as theft. Those who hold with the former interpretation use skins to make velum books and scrolls, to make leather items, to repair their coracles, or even for ships’ sails. Those who hold with the latter hoist them like flags in praise of their husband and master at various places around the island.

The piracy of these women extends up and down the entire coast. By longstanding custom they do not molest the people of the Town of Dolorous Garde, and they do not stray too close to the Place of the Keepers. But any fisherman, merchant or coast dweller must be constantly vigilant for their presence. Fortunately, for the locals, their numbers are relatively few.

Unholy Island is a tidal island and is accessible by a south-easterly approach across mud flats for d3+3 hours twice over the course of any 24 hour period. Whenever the PCs visit, or if it is necessary in advance to work out tide times, simply roll 1d12 to determine the hour between 1am and noon at which the first accessible period begins. Then roll another 1d12 to determine the hour between 1pm and midnight at which the second accessible period begins. At all other times the island is a genuine island which can only be accessed by boat.

A tiny islet sits just off the southernmost tip of Unholy Island, like a small boat moored to the sea’s bottom. On it there stands a low circle of six thin white columns. Each day, a group of nine Type IV automata walk across the mud flats as soon as the tide is out, whether it is night or morning. They remain there from that point for the rest of the day until the last possible moment before the second accessible period ends, at which point they return to the shore and wait for the next accessible period to begin. According to the people of the Town of Dolorous Garde, they have done this since the time of the Emperor. To what end, they cannot tell.

Friday, 7 February 2020

Transparent DMing

My DMing style is highly transparent.

I roll all dice in the open. I almost always tell the players what I am rolling for and what number will indicate 'success' (with e.g. monster 'to hit' rolls). I even do this for surprises and traps as a general rule - so when the players are going round the dungeon I will, for example, tell them when I am rolling for a random encounter, then the surprise roll if there is an encounter, then the reaction roll, etc.

I never use a DM screen.

I am happy to give the players some narrative control by asking them things like, "Where do you think the orcs you just captured were going?"

I am also happy to ask their advice when making rulings. "What do you guys think would be a fair way of judging if this PC can jump over the chasm?"

I generally let them know I am just a guy behind a curtain pulling rods and levers rather than a wizard. I am willing to be persuaded out of things and retcon when I have clearly made an error of judgment.

I am fine with saying, on occasion, things like, "Sorry that I have to do this to you, but the random wilderness encounter I just rolled up is a real bastard." But I never change the result of a roll or fudge.

I think all of this makes the players more involved and invested in the success of the session and takes a lot of the pressure off DMing. I also think it creates useful narrative distance between events in the game and the players. By making things partially non-immersive through putting the mechanics in the open, the 'feel' is more arch - one is tempted to say Vancian - and there is much less temptation to get carried away with trying to make up a story and start fudging. In this sense it is a bit like postmodern architecture - rather than hide the plumbing, wiring and so on, it's made into a centrepiece.

I have found that the more I do these things, the better and more fun my sessions are.

Wednesday, 5 February 2020

Everything is Unique

The most popular children's character in Japan by a country mile is Anpanman. Forget Pokemon and Hello Kitty. Those are for foreigners. If you want to know what actual Japanese children are into, it's Anpanman all the way.

The interesting thing about Anpanman is that almost every character who ever appears is a unique, named individual. According to wikipedia, in the first 980 episodes and 20 films there are 1,768 distinct named characters - and most of them recur from time to time in the vast range of merchandised products available to waste your money on, ranging from snacks to bikes to nappies to stationary. For a sample of this, here are some random pictures from an Anpanman iteration of the Where's Wally? idea.

As you can perhaps see from these photos, this lends the Anpanman universe an unusual atmosphere: half-Star Wars cantina, half-small town in which everybody knows each other. The characters are in one sense a throng, but in another are portrayed as distinct persons each with their own goals, desires, hopes and fears. What they are definitely not is just "orcs" or "storm troopers" or "klingons" or whatever. They are people. Most children's TV series and books are a little like this, but Anpanman is unique in the scope and range of characters appearing in it.

I very much like the idea of a D&D campaign in which not just every NPC is a distinct, named individual (this may be one of the best bits of advice in Apocalypse World, actually), but in which every single monster is also a type all of its own. I don't just mean that every orc in the group of 6 you've just encountered has a name; I mean that you didn't just encounter a group of 6 orcs - you encountered a group of 6 individual beings, allied together but all of their own individual kind. This requires time and effort (or a really big and detailed random table) but would I think be worth it - because it would make every single encounter, every single lair, an event and a surprise.

Tuesday, 4 February 2020

On a Northumberland Yoon-Suin

I am "doing a thing", tentatively referred to as 'Northumberland Yoon-Suin'. I mentioned it briefly here, but the basic idea is to do Yoon-Suin in reverse. If Yoon-Suin allows you to create a version of Southern Asia which a medieval European might have imagined from stitched-together myths, rumours and fragments of knowledge about the real thing, then this will allow you to create a version of Northumberland which a person from Late Classical India might have imagined from stitched-together myths, rumours and fragments of knowledge about the real thing.

It has the ruins and detritus of a long-lost Empire, storm giant aristocrats, elves which steal people, dwarves who always lie to non-dwarves and always tell the truth to other dwarves, bogles and redcaps and grindylows and shellycoats, and a dungeon made from a gargantuan gorse bush. It is on a much smaller scale than Yoon-Suin and is supposed to be 'droppable' into an existing D&D campaign map. I am reasonably confident it will be completed at some point rather than end up as vapourware.

Here is a preliminary map.

Tuesday, 28 January 2020

The Commodification of Fun

I am not an 'extremely online' sort of person, and I don't really give a fuck about video games (I don't think I have played any video game in 3 years), so I have only just learned of the existence of twitch - although, oddly enough, I used to watch pirated football live streams on it when it was justin.tv, back in the day, and I was living far away from home. Apparently in its modern iteration it's kind of a big deal. People even play D&D on it, and presumably make money doing so.

I visited the site this morning to see what's what, and more or less randomly came across this example. As is the case with any "Actual Play" video or podcast I have ever seen I find the experience of watching this group play D&D excruciating - the sensation I can most readily liken it to is being dragged around a department store by your wife or girlfriend, watching her being engrossed in something which is for her great fun but which you can gain literally no pleasure or interest from whatsoever. (I suspect my wife experiences this sensation when I am watching cricket on TV, but I'm not going to let that stop me.) Suffice to say, I wish these people well and they seem perfectly nice, but I simply cannot fathom how anybody can watch more than 2 minutes of ANY actual play video of an RPG. Maybe if Rachel McAdams was DMing for Jessica Alba, Jennifer Anniston, Hyori Lee and Haruna Kawaguchi, or something.

Is the fact that people can now play D&D online while people watch, and make money doing so, a wonderful illustration of how human civilization is flourishing in totally unexpected ways in the internet age, or yet another example of how all of our interactions and relationships are now becoming mediated by market forces as neoliberalism continues its inexorable expanse into every corner of human life, including the personal and familial?

The awful truth is, it is both. It is genuinely fabulous, much as I loathe the experience of watching these things, that people can now connect around hobbies which are dear to them in such a vastly more expansive scope than they could previously, and even get to Make Money Doing Something They Love. But it is also terrible, to my eye at least, how nowadays commodification seems inescapable - that something as innocent as playing D&D becomes repackaged and commercialised and transformed into a resource to be exploited for the making of money, that this seems to end up with a great many people just being made into passive spectators rather than participants (with the purpose of their being there really just to provide all the eyeball-time and all the clicks and all the data for further commercial exploitation) and that the experience of bonding with friends increasingly comes to feel like it is somehow inadequate unless large numbers of other people are watching and commenting. I find it troubling how few people are troubled by this.

I listen to money singing. It's like looking down
From long french windows at a provincial town,
The slums, the canal, the churches ornate and mad
In the evening sun. It is intensely sad.
-Philip Larkin, "Money"

Saturday, 11 January 2020

Terminator 2 vs Gemini Man

On a long haul flight recently I got the chance to watch an odd double bill - Terminator 2 and Gemini Man. There was basically no other option that I felt a remotely sane person would want to watch - it was Frozen and a few other Disney/Pixar type things (in which a fish/toy/video game character/cute robot/lion/bear/princess/Scottish princess/alien learns that the important thing in life is just to be who you are), or some variant of The Hangover and its ilk, or some variant of The Holiday and its ilk, or some variant of New Year's Eve and its ilk. Face with these or the alternative of staring blankly into space for 8 hours and waiting in hope for sleep's sweet embrace to descend despite it being the middle of the day, I know which one I would choose. 

Taken together, Terminator 2 and Gemini Man are hardly what you would call twins. But there are some similarities. Both are made by intelligent directors (James Cameron and Ang Lee) who make films which are visually interesting, and often show a preoccupation with the human body. Both have lots of gunplay and indeed have an almost pornographic relationship to firearms. Both are at times aggressively stupid. Neither are masterpieces. The main difference is that Terminator 2 succeeds in spite of its flaws, while Gemini Man is the duddiest of duds.

Why do I say these films are aggressively stupid? With Terminator 2 it is partly just to do with the silliness of the plot, which even setting aside the problems with the basic premise (if on both occasions it sent a Terminator back in time Skynet came within a whisker of killing either Sarah Connor or John Connor respectively, why doesn't it keep sending them on a weekly basis, or just send 100? You're not allowed to say "Well, this is explained in the 6th episode in the franchise...") asks the audience on too many occasions to kick their brains out of the window. 

I don't really mean the picky questions. (Why does the T-101 not know what crying is? Why is he completely impervious to rifle bullets but vulnerable to being whacked with a big steel pole? Why does he care about the destruction of Skynet? Why is he able to understand situational nuance ("They'll live.")? Why does he still allow himself to be destroyed despite John commanding him not to?) I mean the braindead, crude, medieval morality-play way in which the characters are presented. Some characters are bad, lazy, foul-mouthed, mean-spirited, or buffoonish, and they get killed. Some are the good guys - resourceful, daring and knowing the truth - and they survive. Cameron's films are always paint-by-numbers in terms of morality, but Terminator 2 really gives the audience no credit whatsoever for having the capacity for independent thought. In order to show John Connor's foster father is a bad 'un and hence deserving of death, we have to see him being lazy (sitting around on the sofa watching TV while his wife tries to discipline the kids), oafish (in the way he talks to her and John) and even abusive to animals (in the way he acts towards his dog. In order to show the mental hospital guard is nasty, we have to show him licking Sarah's face. In order to show the psychiatrist treating Sarah is a meanie, we have to see him stringing her along, making sarcastic comments when he thinks she's not listening, and giving only the most perfunctory attempts at treatment. We're then invited to cackle and bay for blood as these people get their violent comeuppances. In Cameron's universe, there are goodies and baddies and you can tell within 5 seconds which is which, and what the baddies deserve is cruel, violent death, and what the goodies deserve is to win in the end. It's that simple and that cartoonish. 

With Gemini Man it's difficult to know where to start. It's not so much that the morality of that film is stupid. It's that everything about it is. The script is dreadful. (At one point you have to sit through Mary Winstead painstakingly explaining to Will Smith that the assassin trying to kill him has exactly the same DNA and what that means. The audience already guessed it was a clone 10 minutes previously. In this conversation it is made unmistakably clear. We still have to them have the line spelling things out at the end: "It's a clone." Because the audience, in the film-makers' minds, can only be idiots.) The characters are drawn in crayon. (Mary Winstead looks waif-like and sensitive, but we know she's tough because her dad was in the FBI and therefore of course she drinks boilermakers; Will Smith is Will Smith and we're shown at the beginning that he doesn't want to risk killing a child so he's a good guy). The plot can be summarised as: it's basically the first three "Bourne" films condensed into one, but much, much worse, full of completely ridiculous and OTT set-pieces, and it's not other assassins trying to kill Bourne, but his clone. And shot in a high frame rate which makes it look like 2 hours of cut scenes from a video game. Events depicted in it are just plainly daft: the opening sequence, featuring Will Smith firing a bullet from a sniper rifle into a high-speed train from a distance of 2km and hitting a target passenger is silly enough, but to imagine it happening in Belgium, for fuck's sake? 

Perhaps worst of all, though, is that its setting is incoherent. What genre is Gemini Man? If the audience feels as though it is watching an SF film, it is more ready to give leeway in terms of the suspension of disbelief. If it feels as though it is watching a gritty espionage thriller, it expects the director to at least grope towards something vaguely realistic and plausible. Gemini Man somehow manages to create the impression it aims for the latter while striking the tone of the former. It sets itself up as being a gritty espionage thriller - that is its furniture, so to speak - but the plot is pure whimsy and the events depicted in it are absurd outside of the context of soft SF. The film is ludicrously badly conceived.

What rescues Terminator 2 and leaves it as the vastly more superior of the two films? First, you have to say that the quality of the female leads makes a huge difference. Linda Hamilton can be histrionic in her performances, but she is also capable of pulling off a really gutsy and emotive scene - witness Sarah's breakdown after the attempt to kill Dyson. And she has the genuine physicality to pull off the action scenes in a believable way. Mary Winstead looks great and she's not a bad actress but she simply fails Mark Kermode's old "Meg Ryan is a helicopter pilot" test - you just can't take her seriously as a hard-boiled secret agent. 

Second, it actually matters that James Cameron didn't have much in the way of CGI to play with when making Terminator 2, and had to do his stunts and set-pieces the old-fashioned way. That film was made in 1991. Some elements have dated. But the action scenes mostly still look great. because in the end a massive truck exploding after a frantic chase down a highway smashing cars hither and thither in 1991 is a massive truck exploding after a frantic chase down a hightway smashing cars hither and thither in 2019. Gemini Man, on the other hand, already looks bad, which is a bizarre thing to say about an Ang Lee film; if anything its visuals most strongly remind me of Michael Mann's rather drab Public Enemies, which never looked as if it hadn't been made on a film set - there is something similar going on in Gemini Man, which always feels as though it is on a screen, rather than really taking place. 

Third, at least for all the flaws in execution, it is to Cameron's credit in Terminator 2 that he attempts to do something really new and interesting with the T-101 character. Ultimately the transformation from unthinking robot into thinking, feeling cyborg is not convincing (especially if you've never seen the director's cut). But at least he tried. In Gemini Man, we get Will Smith, being Will Smith as an assassin. This is new and interesting in the sense that "Will Smith as an assassin" sounds like in theory it could be a real career-shift. But what we get is, ultimately, Will Smith as an assassin - an implausibly nice, warm, screen presence who surely has never killed a fly, let alone another human being. There isn't even an attempt to give him an edge.

Fourth, though, the reason why Terminator 2 works is that it's a film which actually has a big idea. Its characters are grappling with things that are bigger than themselves - life, death, the universe, everything. Not just nuclear war but family, love, the ongoing capacity for humanity to be truly human rather than simply one side against another in a bitter and possibly endless struggle for survival. Their mission is imbued with meaning. And they pursue their goals at least in a way that shows why we should be rooting for them: because they value life, because they think that it's good that human beings exist and that human societies flourish, and because they want to save the good in such societies even while they are clear-sighted about the bad things within them (crime, lies, pettiness, incarceration, and all the rest). Gemini Man's lens is much more narrow. It's a question of Will Smith staying alive, and presented in such a lacklustre way that the conclusion is foregone from the beginning. Why follow a story to its conclusion when its result is never in doubt, and when the main protagonists have such little depth or consequence?